Over the past 20 years of practice, knee pain is one of the most common complaints I treat. When your knees hurt, it’s hard to walk, get out of a chair and climb stairs. Knees can swell, ache and be completely uncooperative. In this blog, I’ll review how knees age and the effects of aging on the knee. Fortunately, there are many exercises you can do to strengthen your knees, making them last longer and feel better as you age.
Effects of Aging on the Knee
Knee pain is an extremely common orthopedic complaint. Frequent knee pain affects about 25 percent of adults, with knee osteoarthritis being the most common cause in people age 50 years and older. With some folks, knee pain can limit function and activity levels, diminishing their quality of life. While obesity and poor lifestyle choices affect how knees age, exercise can greatly reduce the effects of aging on the knee.
Muscles provide power, allowing us to move and supporting our knees and other joints. Muscle strength peaks around the age of 25 and plateaus in our 30-40s. After that, it starts to decline and can do so rapidly without exercise. By the age of 65, our muscles can produce about 75 percent of peak force. These facts about muscle aging are important when considering how knees age, because muscle weakness leads to excess stress on the knee joints. Over time, we can speed up how knees age if we allow our bodies to weaken without exercise.
How to Make Knees Stronger
The large muscles of the leg (the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and even gluteals) all support the knee. Symmetric and good strength in these groups provide our knees adequate support as we walk, climb and move. Exercising as we age is essential in keeping our knees healthy and strong. Here are a few simple exercises you can do to reduce the effects of aging on the knee.
This exercise is one you should keep in your routine forever. Perform it 3 times per week leaving a day of rest between sessions. As pictured to the left, lower your body as if sitting into a chair. Keep your head up, butt out and knees over your ankles; repeat up to 20 reps or until your thighs are burning.
2. Knee Extension Stretches:
The biggest predictor of chronic knee pain is a loss of full hyperextension, which is the backward bend of your knee. Even a few degrees of loss accelerate the effects of aging on your knees. In the picture to the right, the heel is elevated while a strap is pulling down on the thigh to push the knee into a fully straight position. You can achieve the same effect at home by placing an ankle weight across your knee with your heel propped on your coffee table or ottoman. Perform daily.
3. Walking and Biking:
Continuing to get cardiovascular exercise through walking and biking is essential for overall knee health. Again, if you are already having knee pain, see a physical therapist who can advise you regarding safe exercise. Walking 10,000-15,000 steps a day is a great guideline for keeping your knees and your body healthy. Stationary biking or cycling is a wonderful way to keep your knees strong with low impact on the joint itself.
How our knees age, and in fact how our entire body ages, has a lot to do with exercise. We cannot avoid getting older. We can make that process easier by exercising. Exercise is just like medicine, and when taken with the right dose regularly, will improve health. Over the last 20 years, I’ve treated thousands of people with knee pain and they all had two things in common: they all learned to exercise their knees and left my office pain free!
If your knees already hurt, please see a physical therapist. If you live in the Portland, Oregon area, contact Life’s Work Physical Therapy at 503-295-2585 or visit www.lifesworkpt.com to schedule an appointment. If you live outside the Portland area, please refer to my previous blog on How to Find a Good PT and visit apta.org to locate a great physical therapist in your area.
Sandra Stryker, PT, MPT, COMT, FAAOMPT